Woman of the Ovahimba
June 25, 1999 – The Namibian
"WHAT immediately struck me about the Ovahimba people when I first met them, was the gaze in their eyes – that far away look depicting the vast expanse of Kaokoland in which they freely roam."
When Rina Sherman, writer, film maker and anthropologist was invited to Namibia three years ago by the former French Ambassador to this country, little did she know that her life was going to change for ever.
From the chic Parisian lifestyle, with quaint sidewalk cafés, high fashion, impeccably groomed women, Chanel no 5, and the buzz of trendy art vogue, Rina now lives in solitude amongst the Ovahimba in Kaokoland.
For the past ten months her home has been a base camp in Etanga – 100 kilometres from Ohohopho. This camp which she has aptly called, "little Hollywood", comprises seven tents, solar energy, and everything that opens and shuts for her needs to make a 16mm film. Since becoming based here her production of a documentary film, The Ovahimba Years, is unfolding.
With an Omuhimba chief and his village as her neighbours, plus a few young Ovahimba recruits she has employed as trainees on the project, she is otherwise alone. Rina has enveloped herself heart and soul into the environment and culture around her.
Rina's day usually starts with sound of cattle lowing and excited chatter of women and children rounding up cows for their daily milking ritual. And ends with the long shadows cast across the parched terrain, which finally disappear into the silence of night.
She spends hours documenting the Ovahimba lifestyle, a project, which she says is going to take three years or more to complete. This includes learning the language, studying their heritage, sound recording, filming and administration. And when she gets lonely, retreats to a little "hideout" she has discovered, and converses with the "spirits".
"The ancestral spirits play a very important role in the life and death process of the Ovahimba. Something which I am becoming accustomed to," explained Rina, adding that the traditional Omuhimba culture possesses all the values that hold water. One of the attributes she treasures the most is their ability to laugh easily. "There are so few people out there that I can really laugh with until my belly aches and the tears run down my cheeks."
The principal aim of the film is to conserve and inform a documentary type episode, which reflects upon events through improvisation. The Ovahimba Years once completed, according to Rina is going to be released under the auspices of the Namibian National Archives, and she plans to share 50 per cent of all profits on a pro rata basis, with whoever was involved with the filming.
When asked what inspired her to pack up all she owns to live a life of a hermit in Kaokoland, Rina replied. "I fell in love with Namibia, and have since dealt with the compilations of being in love with a country that is powerfully magnificent yet treacherous.
"My first fascination was a visit to the Sossusvlei dunes, where I ran to the top, took all my clothes off and embraced the solitude."
It was here her search stopped. For years the Paris-based Rina had been travelling and exploring various cultural avenues, in which to conduct a long term filming project.
Equipped with a Ph.D. in visual anthropology along with 15 years of studying various degrees and working in the film industry, the dream to one day plunge head first into recording the life of an exotic culture, became a priority to pursue.
With only photos of the Ovahimba to fan her ambitions, the dream soon became reality. After a short recce to Kaokoland, Rina returned to France to implement a master plan and raise funds. During this time she won a research bursary from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs after submitting a dossier. But with not much interest in sponsoring her project forthcoming, she took the bull by the horns.
"I was going to come to Namibia come hell or high water, so with a laptop a few clothes and a head full of ideas, I arrived on February 28 1988," Rina added.
"The first few months I stayed in Windhoek to continue the development of my project, and managed to involve over 30 sponsors – Namibian companies who extended their generosity and faith in me, and made The Ovahimba Years possible.
"I landed in Ohohopho during May of that year, where I spent a further two months getting familiar with the lay of the land, before finally heading out to Etanga where I chose to make my base camp."
"Presently I commute between Etanga and Paris quite regularly. I leave Kaokoland speaking broken Otjiherero, arrive in Windhoek speaking English and Afrikaans, and get to Paris speaking French, " she said with a twinkle in her eyes.
"Once in Paris, I have nothing but an eight metre office, which is actually a maid's room I have converted into a work station, stacked with files, books, video cassettes and a heap of blankets, which I use as my bed."
Referring to the fact that she is 42-year-old (one would never say so), and never been married, Rina admits that her gypsy lifestyle is a means to an end – her project, for which she has to sacrifice a lot.
But she does admit that deep down inside she would love to settle down on a farm, with a big stone house and a stoop running all the way around it, so she could sit and gaze at the sunsets. "I fancy that "Out of Africa" existence, large brimmed sun hats, a vegetable garden, lots of animals, and a wonderful man by your side – or is that too average?" she sighed, giggling that Meryl Streep had managed to do a brilliant impersonation of her dream life.
Nothing about Rina is average though. She's not your average stunning blonde. Nor is she your average academic who intimidates you with years of knowledge she has gleaned through relentless studies.
She has shunned and buried her religious Afrikaans Broederbond Calvinistic background so well, that you would never identify from listening to her speak that she is a "gewone boeremeise from the Cape."
As she explains in her sophisticated cultured "anglaise" accent, how she went into exile to France in 1984, spurred on by her desire to erase that culture which raised her, and all that it stood for.
Equipped then with a master's degree in Media Studies, and having done an intense theatrical stint, Rina reminisces how she was one of the first white women to have acted in an all black play.
"This theatre wasn't a liberal white outfit giving a voice every now and then to the black man. But rather a black consciousness movement through and through," Rina explained, saying her work was always cultural not political, but it didn't mean she couldn't have ideas of free expression.
Referring to the reason behind her self-exile, she pointed out further saying, "I needed to implode the wills and role playing of my cultural background, with its restrictive ambience that I could no longer live with.
"It wasn't that easy, because the call to return to that that shapes you is always there."
Meanwhile back in Kaokoland, The Ovahimba Years is taking shape, and the dedication of one woman at work will manifest itself for all to see. I did notice however, from the first time we met that Rina had cut her hair into a short, chick bob, which I assumed was part of the transformation she has undergone for her project in the bowels of Africa.
"No," she replied coquettishly, " I would never sacrifice beauty for practical reasons." That's Rina.
(c) 1999 The Namibian